BY KENNETH MATIMAIRE
ZIMBABWE recorded the worst internet censorship rankings in southern Africa despite President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s new dispensation promises to usher democratic reforms.
Zimbabwe is one of the 175 countries that featured in the Internet Censorship 2021: A Global Map of Internet Restrictions compiled by Comparitech — a UK based firm that specialises in analysis of cyber-security products and services.
The exploratory study ranked each country out of 11 points to assess states that imposed the harshest internet restrictions and those where citizens enjoy the most online freedom.
The report released last week, looked at restrictions or bans for torrenting — software used to do piracy downloads from copyrighted materials — pornography, social media, and VPNs, and restrictions or heavy censorship on political media for the period 2020.
According to the report, Zimbabwe scored four out of 11 points along with 18 other countries, including Zambia.
This is due to its restrictions for torrenting, pornography, political and social media.
Technically, this makes Zimbabwe the most repressive state within the region although one of the least censored globally.
“In relation to its neighbours, Zimbabwe is the worst-scoring country (alongside Zambia which has the same restrictions) with four points,” Rebecca Moody from Comparitech told the Zimbabwe Independent via email.
According to the report South Africa scored three points for its full torrenting bans or blocks and pornography restrictions while Botswana and Mozambique both scored two points for torrenting and political media restrictions.
Malawi had one score for torrenting restrictions, making it the least censored country within the region.
Moreover, Zimbabwe’s ratings on the 2021 World Press Freedom Index also fell to 130, four steps down from the previous year’s ratings, according to RSF.
The developments came after Mnangagwa pledged to reinforce the pillars of democracy including the media, which has been harassed and gagged under the rule of his predecessor — the late Robert Mugabe.
However, RSF notes that Mnangagwa’s first steps with regard to press freedom “have been marked more by promises than anything like the concrete progress for which journalists had hoped.”
The same was highlighted in the Comparitech report, which detailed that Zimbabwe’s political media has suffered with journalists often being threatened, harassed and restricted in their speech.
Journalists such as Hopewell Chin’ono are cases in point.
Comparitech, its report, further takes note that media licenses are often held by political parties and military personnel which creates censorship and bias.
Moreover, the country has clamped down on online spaces where social media has been heavily impacted in the past with full blocks implemented during protests.
This has been the case following the electoral results of the August 2018 polls and the January 2019 riots against fuel price hikes.
Though no blocks were reported during the period under review, Moody explained that the report “accounts for the various threats against (social media) use, including suggestions that the military would monitor these platforms.”
Moody further warned Zimbabweans to brace for more stringent restrictions as “the Cybersecurity (and Data Protection) Bill also strengthens these (existing) restrictions.”
The Reporters Without Borders (RSF) raised similar concerns that the Cyber-security Bill may further threaten the freedom of speech for journalists.
“Journalists are worried about a Cybercrime Bill that is being drafted because it would allow the security apparatus to legally spy on private conversations. The army chief’s reference to social media as a threat to national security has reinforced their fears,” stated RSF.
The Cybersecurity and Data Protection Bill which was gazetted in May 2020 and subjected to public hearings in July 2020, has now been recommitted in the Senate following its passing in the National Assembly.
The development came after Defence Minister Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri declared that the ruling party will fast track the process to silence anti-government critics within online spaces.
However, the Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa)-Zimbabwe has raised concerns over the pace at which the Bill is progressing in the absence of due diligence.
Misa-Zimbabwe board chairperson Golden Maunganidze said the recommittal of the Bill is a clear indication that there are significant errors that have been noted necessitating substantive amendments to it.
In a letter addressed to the Speaker of the National Assembly, Advocate Jacob Mudenda, Maunganidze said the Bill must be brought back to the public for extensive review.
“The Cybersecurity and Data Protection Bill has clearly been subjected to significant changes and varied substantively from the gazetted Bill that was subject to public hearings.
“Passing this Bill into law, in its amended form without public consultation on the various changes is tantamount to violating the constitutional rights of citizens to participate and influence the law-making process. In light of the errors of a material nature that have been noted and acknowledged by the Senate, there is a need for an extensive review of the Bill with further input from the general public as well,” said Maunganidze who also chairs the media body’s Sadc region.
Misa-Zimbabwe has called for due diligence as the Cybersecurity Bill is a key piece of legislation as it impacts the country’s social, political and economic landscape.
A strong cyber-security and data protection framework is critical for the exercise and enjoyment of human rights, trade, increased investments and Zimbabwe’s socioeconomic development.
Misa-Zimbabwe stated that it is imperative that the Bill is used to champion human rights online and not cyber-censorship.